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"Personally, I Prefer Personalism" by John Shaheen

Why Personalism is a Better View for God than Classical Theism

One important point of contention is God’s immutability. Classical theists will argue that God is simple, and this simplicity is necessary. His essence and being are one and necessary, therefore he is not subject to change. This causes several divergences between the classical theists and personalists. First, it requires a certain view of time and God’s relationship to it. In classical theism, God’s immutability forces the view that he is essentially timeless. This view fits well with a B theory of time, where all points in time are equally real, and God "observes" the timeline of the world from the outside. For theistic personalists, it is acceptable that God may enter into time upon his creation of time, permanently giving up his previous timeless state. The initial objections to this view would likely be regarding the implications on God’s nature. Can God "give up" his omnipotence or omniscience? By allowing that God’s timelessness can be altered, it appears to open the door to two things: first, that his nature may be changed and second, that he is not simple in the Thomistic sense as one attribute was changed, implying that the attributes are distinct. To the first problem, I would like to clarify that under an orthodox version of theistic personalism, God still exists necessarily. He is also necessarily omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect etc. These cannot be altered. It does not seem to cause any sort of contradictions, however, if timelessness was not intrinsic to God’s nature. Perhaps timelessness was simply contingent upon his not yet creating time. While this requires rejecting the simplicity and immutability of Thomistic thought, it doesn’t seem to be problematic in an a priori sense. In this school of thought, God would still be simple in many ways. God is still immaterial. Furthermore, as William Alston proposes, God’s knowledge can be considered quite simple. God can encompass all knowledge as one divine intuition, lacking the complexities of belief and propositions that finite beings rely on (Alston, 1986). On theistic personalism, divine simplicity need not be completely thrown out, but re-understood. 

Another objection that may be posed against the theistic personalist is that under this view, God is not truly perfect as he can change, therefore improve over time. Some may embrace this, and not consider it a worthy objection. However, for those desiring to adhere to an orthodox theism, this is not an acceptable consequence. Seemingly, it is actually not a consequence at all. Suppose that the essential divine nature is the standard of perfection. If something like his relation to time (which is not a part of his necessary nature) changes, he still fully encompasses the divine nature. Nothing has changed of his essential properties, so he is still perfect. It is not a matter of improving or worsening, it is a lateral move. 

Given that there seems to be no a priori reason for rejecting theistic personalism, I will now address advantages to this conception of God over classical theism. From a Judeochristian perspective, as Owen takes (Owen, 1977) classical theism seems to run into complications with the necessity of a timeless God. It seems wholly incompatible with the incarnation of Christ, along with the many literal appearances of God in the Old Testament. A timeless God appearing on earth seems excessively mysterious at best and incoherent at worst. With regards to explaining the incarnation and appearances of God, personalism holds an advantage as God exists within time. Furthermore, God’s simplicity in classical theism appears to lead to strange implications. First, as William Lane Craig and J.P Moreland point out, this simplicity may lead to an extreme form of fatalism (Moreland and Craig, 2017). If all of the purported attributes of God collapse to a necessary singular essence, it implies that everything that God is and does are logically necessary. He can have no contingent knowledge or actions. Also, the epistemic distance created by classical theism implies that God is wholly unknowable. Nothing of his being is like anything that we know of. This forces a complete agnosticism about what God is. Another problem that arises from this is that if one thinks that God is the standard of moral good, but he is also fully unknowable and unrelatable to anything we know of, how could we ever think to grasp any concept of goodness? Appealing again to a Judeochristian perspective as Owen does, we observe God’s command in Leviticus: be holy, for I am holy. It appears that the holiness we are expected to have should be a reflection of God’s holiness. If he were fully unknowable, this would not be possible. 

A final objection to classical theism is that if God creates, it seems his knowledge would be altered. Before creation, his knowledge of what is actualized would consist of only himself. After creation, his knowledge would include the true facts surrounding the existence of creation apart from God. I use “before” and “after” in the causal sense, because God would still be timeless. Despite his timelessness, his knowledge would have changed. Furthermore, the act of creation could serve as a metric for a type of time that applies to God. This means that in the sense of his immutability, God is both no longer timeless in the same sense as before creation, as well as the fact that his knowledge would have changed. The classical theist could escape this by arguing that there was no beginning to creation, and it existed eternally contingent upon God, but many are not willing to sacrifice God’s creation ex nihilo. 

All of this confusion can be avoided by accepting a view closer to theistic personalism. Orthodoxy is still preserved, and one can even appreciate God’s greatness more. He willingly gave up his timeless state for his creation, out of his love and desire to exist intimately close to them. While the theistic personalist readily admits that God is far beyond anything our finite minds could grasp, he does not accept that this leaves God completely unknowable.

  • 23 February 2022
  • Author: Guest Blogger
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